Too often, “being religious” amounts to little more than being loyal to a particular religion’s institutions and traditions. And even worse, to those alone — other religions don’t count. Nor do those who subscribe to them.
There is an important fact left unaccounted for in an outlook like this. Human beings sought the Ultimate long before there were religions to tell them that there is an Ultimate worth seeking.
Once, it was possible to express this point by saying that human beings are by nature religious. Or more importantly, by saying that we cannot be fully human without honoring the religious yearnings that dwell in the deepest places of our souls.
For these convictions to be fully appreciated today, however, they will have to be given expression by means of some other word than “religion.”
It is not as if the word itself somehow belies our true nature. The problem is that it has become contaminated by the very institutions which define themselves by means of it.
The contamination begins with these institutions’ condemning people who find little in them by way of inspiration and nurture. With one voice, their leaders confidently proclaim, the problem is not with their particular institution. It is with the unfaithful who will not make themselves subservient to it.
We can be fully human without being religious, in these leaders’ sense of the word. But we cannot be fully human and deny something else in our nature, something more important than the need to identify with a particular religious organization or cult.
What that something is might be expressed this way: the need to seek connection with realities that are truly worthy of our highest devotion. In a word, it is a need to live by faith rather than by religion.
For increasing numbers of people, religion must offer more than the approval of peers who believe and do what they are told, ask no questions, and condemn all doubt. It must nurture faith: the capacity and the freedom to respond to what is of all-surpassing meaning, power, and value with gratitude and joy, on the basis of deliberation and choice, and not impulse or coercion.
Maybe someday the institutions and traditions of religion will get it right again and help us in just this way. For now, though, seeking faith will have to be enough. And it is.